I’d often read that Los Angeles was a terrible place to try and use public transport. I’d never had occasion to use it until now, at which point I began to see why no-one has a good word to say about it.
I don’t drive in the US. It’s a long story, but basically the auto insurance system in California is probably the most bizarre I have ever encountered (and it’s worth an entire post all to itself), and in order for Casey to be able to keep driving I had to sign a waiver for her insurers stating that I would never drive our car. It was the only way they’d insure her.
I’ll moan about that another time. In passing, I’ll comment that car insurance in this state costs a minimum of ten times what it costs in the UK. It’s as bad as the cost of basic dentistry here – also at least ten times the cost of private dentistry in the UK. But I digress. That’s easy to do when there are so many crappy decisions to rail against.
Anyway. Lately Casey’s knees have been getting so bad that even making a necessary trip to see a doctor has been beyond her. Despite some major painkillers (Vicodin, and previously Oxycontin as well, even adding over-the-counter pain meds into the mix) her pain levels are such that moving about is bone-on-bone excruciating and so getting prepared for a trip to see any of her providers takes several hours, has severe limits imposed on the distance she can drive (usually no more than about 10 miles), and takes her a good four days afterwards to recover as the pain levels slowly return to their normal but still-high state.
Needless to say we have to space the visits carefully.
The result is that increasingly frequently we have had to reschedule appointments at the last minute (even for me, since I’m dependent on Casey as chauffeuse – and we’ve learned that it’s best for both of us to attend each other’s appointments, just to make sure things are done right), and now two of our providers have told us that they won’t book appointments for us – they’ve told us to let them know either the day before (not possible!) or on the day itself when we think that Casey will be up to making the trip, and they’ll somehow fit us in.
There’s a lot of that screwy kind of logic at work here (asking you to determine something the day before, when you won’t know for sure until the day itself), and it’s not just a “California thing”, which is how so many peculiarities are passed off here.
Anyway. Casey’s knees. Bad. So I figured, why don’t I use public transport for the little local things that need doing every so often? Like going to the bank at the bottom of our hill to deposit a cheque/check or two.
There was a time when I could afford to take a cab to do some of the more urgent things, but right now, being out of work yet again (3 months out of work in 2007, 7 months in 2008, 6 months in 2009, and we’re starting 2010 off on the wrong foot, too) – and all because of cost-cutting decisions by senior management (even in the face of federal oversight of the company’s failure to adhere to simple regulatory standards) – cabs are not even on the list of possibilities as far as transport is concerned.
So it’s the bus.
The bus companies here really don’t trust their drivers. I mean they really don’t trust them at all. There are machines on every bus that handle the fares (no tickets, I noticed, which seems a bit odd) – no money ever gets touched by a driver – and it’s exact change or tough ..er.. tu-tu. You don’t get to travel. Nobody makes change on buses at all.
And given the frailties of the regularly crumpled physical dollar bill, it’s not unusual for a machine to refuse to accept a perfectly good note for reasons that are never divulged to ordinary members of the long-suffering public.
There are bus passes, of course, and those used to be very flexible. You could buy a bundle of day passes direct from the driver, about $3 a pop, and they were the scratch-off type: you picked the month and day you wanted to use the pass, scratched off the date, and you were good to go for 24 hours.
Not any more.
Now you have to use either cash or a stupid thing called a TAP card. I’ll come to that in a minute.
The cash thing is weird. All fares seem to cost $1.25 no matter how long the journey may take, as long as you don’t get off the bus. On some lines you can ask for a “transfer” – a token that allows you to change buses and hand the token to the driver of the second bus (or third) without having to pay another $1.25 – but not all. And it’s horrendously complex. Some lines do or don’t accept this or that payment, and there are some stiff fines for passengers failing to do things right.
I had a need to visit the bank (I used to be up to walking the distance but the blood pressure meds and the paraesthesia in my feet have conspired to make me need the bus even for half a mile) and to drop by my cardiologist’s office to see if they had any samples of my more expensive meds, to help cope with not only my lack of medical insurance but also the total lack of any decent basic universal health care coverage in the US (the subject of another upcoming post, I’m pretty sure :)) or even decent pricing policy for pharmaceuticals.
[It’s crazy but American Pharma charges its home market up to ten times as much as it charges everyone else in the world – and a majority of Americans seem to think that’s OK (or that they’re subsidizing the rest of the world; they’re not, but you’ll never convince them). Bizarre. My personal opinion is that such a mindset derives from a lack of exposure to systems in other developed countries for an extended period of time (say two years), to be able to draw a decent comparison. If you watch the movie Sicko you begin to get an idea of just how out-of-whack the thinking can be here.]
Anyway. Get back on topic. Bus schedules. The bank and the cardiologist’s office are more or less on a straight-ish line, and I figured there’d be a bus running the entire way. It’s only about 10 minutes total travel time, if that, by car. And with every traffic light against you.
By bus, well, things get a bit more complicated. The website offering an online bus journey planning service told me there were four possible services I could use. All of them required two buses to make the 10-15 minute (it said) journey. The prices ranged from $1.55 to $2.50, one way.
OK, you’d think, two buses no big deal, obviously you go with the cheapest quoted price.
Hold your horses there, squire.
To use the cheapest route, the journey takes an hour, and that’s *if* you make the connection (which is across the other side of the street – and that’s a whole other epic), and *if* the bus is still running and *if* there are seats available. And if they stop. They usually do. My experience so far of drivers is that they’re amiable and talkative. And usually women.
But round trip, $5, 15 minutes each way (or so) – assuming the connection is made and there’s sufficent seating (‘cos otherwise they don’t stop) *and* the bus is actually running (there are no nice little displays at the bus stops letting you know when the next bus is coming, which you’d expect for a technologically-advanced culture like SoCal (that’s what we hip types call Southern California. It’s always so much of an effort here to actually say the words in full, apparently, so everyone abbreviates just about everything) – I can live with that.
In fact, there’s a $5 Day Pass available – and it would enable me to make a couple of side trips and thereby save some $$$. Always a good thing, no?
No. They’ve stopped issuing the Day Pass as a separate piece of paper. You have to purchase the fare and have it added to your TAP card.
You can buy the Day Pass on a bus – but you have to have the TAP card first so that it can be electronically loaded up with it.
So, I go looking for the TAP card. Can I buy it on the bus? Nope.
Can I buy it from a local vendor? Nope – the nearest is two or three bus rides away, conveniently negating any cost savings I was hoping to enjoy.
Can I buy it online, have it mailed to me? Yes, you can! (I’ve heard that before, somewhere, I think. Or something like it.)
OK. Let’s see – how much does the TAP card cost? $2. OK, I can live with that. Put it in the shopping cart, check out.
Fail. “You must have at least one product installed on the TAP card to complete your purchase.”
OK. Let’s go see if I can order that Day Pass and have the thing delivered all ready to go.
Nope. So what can I choose from?
Three options – starting at the low end: $62 for a monthly pass.
But I don’t want a monthly pass, sunshine, I want to buy a Day Pass.
Yes, you can – but first you have to have a TAP card. And the TAP card has to have at least a monthly pass on it, value $62 (plus the $2 for the TAP card). I’ll bet there are mailing costs too.
Let me get this straight. I want to buy a $5 Day Pass, and to do it I have to buy $64 worth of product first? A product that gives me a whole month’s worth of almost unlimited travel? Then why would I want the dang Day Pass in the first place?
Bring on the crazies. It gets worse. That $62 is a repeating fee – every month, once you set it going. And all because I wanted to save a few measly dollars on one day’s travel.
That’s what I call a Deserve To Fail.
So stuff TAP, it’ll be cash, then, and somehow I’ve got to make sure I have all the small notes and change I’ll need for each leg of the journey (four legs minimum, and quite possibly six), and exact change for each leg – none of this “I’ll pay for it all at one go, here’s a ten, keep the change.”
I miss the days of being able to buy a “return” that was good all the way there and all the way back, even with breaks along the route. And from the driver, yet. Oh, well.
I mentioned earlier about the epic concerning the other side of the street. Here’s how that pans out.
In Los Angeles (and I’m assuming SoCal as a whole), buses connect at intersections (crossroads to we Brits). OK, no problem there, makes sense (although why the bus can’t turn a corner and keep on going, well, I’ll forgo that question for now).
But when you look at a schedule, such as the one provided by the online trip planner I used, you see odd little letter groups, like SB and NB, and NE or SW. It takes a bit of thinking to work out what they mean (not thought, you notice, but thinking).
SB is South-bound, and NB you can figure for yourself. OK, fair enough, many streets in LA and SoCal are configured to run North-South and East-West, sort of. I didn’t see a WB or EB but I’m sure they’re around somewhere. (In fact, I *know* there’s a WB close by – Warner Bros is at the bottom of the hill, as it happens. :))
The NE and SW are compass co-ordinates, obviously, but sometimes trying to work out exactly how to interpret them can be a bit problematical.
Given that traffic drives on the right here, it would stand to reason that a public service vehicle would really only be likely to be dropping off/picking up just before an intersection or just after it, on the right.
So if the intersection is nicely North-South and the bus route is heading North, it’s easy to see where the pick up/drop-off point will be. If it’s going North, pre-intersection will be SE and post- will be NE.
But what if the bus is heading East-West and the planner says the pick-up will be SE. Is that SE right? SE is at the bottom right of the intersection; if you’re traveling East to West it can only be NE or NW (right-hand side of the road, remember).
Or is the orientation geared to your direction of travel (like “bandits at three o’clock, skipper!”) – it’s down to your orientation at the time, so North is the direction of travel (like 12 o’clock would be) even if you’re heading East-West, and then SE will be correct. But is it? Or is it a typo? And do you have a compass on you at all times, to be able to check?
I’m clearly going to have to. Have a compass, that is. I have a lousy sense of direction, something that’s been well established over several decades. Even now, as I look out of the dining room window I have to force myself to logically reason that I’m looking North-ish, and not South, as my internal compass would have me believe – looking down a hill has always made me think of South, for some reason.
And if you have to cross the intersection to connect to another bus, how does the orientation change (if it changes)?
The planner doesn’t help me decide. It shows a blob on a line crossing another line, and no indication of which way is up (and the direction of travel is actually North-East, as it happens – I’ve been there many times before – so does that help when the service is clearly going to be anything but in a neat North-South/East-West orientation?
There’s a reason they call this place La-La Land. I think I’ve now figured out why…